Diversity in Conservation


Expanding Career Opportunities for People of Color in the Environmental Sciences

There’s never been a better time to work in the environmental sciences. The field is in rapid expansion, with average salaries of $68,910 per year, nearly double the median annual wage, and employment in the sector is projected to continue to grow by some 11% through 2024. “Heightened public interest in the hazards facing the environment,” says the Department of Labor, “as well as the increasing demands placed on the environment by population growth, is expected to spur demand for environmental scientists and specialists.”

But are these opportunities available to everyone? Is the door to the world of the environmental sciences fully open for women and people of color? And if not, what can be done about it? If certain groups are denied, not only are they denied access to the higher salaries and prestige of this sector, but it’s also bad for the environment: we need all people to be invested in saving the planet. In today’s piece, we’ll explore the vital issue of access for all to the fields of environment and conservation.

The Green Ceiling

According to the seminal report The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, sponsored by the Green 2.0 working group and covering mainstream NGOs, foundations, and government agencies, there exists a “green ceiling” for minorities: despite increasing racial diversity elsewhere, minority employment in environmental organizations has held steady around 16% for decades. And of those minorities who are hired, most remain in the lower ranks of these organizations, with less than 12% of leadership positions held by people of color. Of the largest conservation and preservation organizations in the U.S., not one is led by an ethnic minority. And where diversity gains have been made, the benefits have gone disproportionately to white women.

The discrepancy is not isolated to leadership. When it comes to the membership of the organizations surveyed, the numbers are equally problematic. Of a total of 3.2 million organization members, nearly six out of ten are males and the representation of minorities among members or volunteers is very low. And although environmental organizations have expressed an interest in diversifying their boards and staff, few have diversity managers or a diversity committee, and cross-race and cross-class collaborations with other organizations are still uncommon.

The report outlines several reasons for this failure to increase minority representation. The first is that environmental jobs are still being advertised in ways that introduce unconscious bias. Recruitment for new staff still frequently occurs informally, through word-of-mouth, which makes it hard for anyone outside of the existing “club” to find out about and apply for jobs. Outreach to minority-serving gatherings and institutions is insufficient. Moreover, organizations have failed to capitalize on their internship pipeline to hire new staff. While minorities make up 22.5% of interns at NGOs and government agencies, and 36.4% of foundations, the percentage of minority staff hired in the past three years is half that.

Tackling the Problem From Above and Below

The Green 2.0 report outlines three critical areas where progress needs to be made. The first is in tracking and transparency, with organizations being urged to institute annual diversity and inclusion assessments, address unconscious bias, and overhaul recruiting. The second is accountability, focusing on the need to include diversity goals in performance evaluations and grant-making criteria. Finally, greater resources must be allocated to promote diversity initiatives and networking for existing leaders of color.

Some organizations, however, are already taking steps to address the crisis of minority underrepresentation in environmental sciences. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with Shaw University, runs a Research Apprenticeship Program for high school students of color in Wake County, North Carolina. The program consists of classes, workshops, and hands-on presentations by EPA scientists, along with a summer program that allows students to take classes at Shaw University and field trips to the Research Triangle area.

The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, started at the University of Washington and now offered at five universities, is another example. The program offers multi-summer conservation experiences for students from underrepresented backgrounds, seeking to draw connections between “conservation, individual and community identities, biodiversity and environmental justice.”

And the largest program of all, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), fosters success in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and leadership positions in STEM fields. With a community of supporters numbering 20,000 and spread across 115 student and professional chapters, the society has trained 269 leaders since 2009 and provided 3,911 travel scholarships in the last five years alone. The common philosophy underlying all of these programs is that minority students need to be offered opportunities in conversation and related sciences at an early age in order for passions to be both developed and channeled into lifelong careers.

Diversity for a Diverse Natural World

For decades, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) has been committed to expanding access to both green spaces and to environmental education and careers – and we know there is even more work to be done in this area. Our organization currently offers five programs designed to increase access for people of color. The National Parks Service Academy trains minority college students for careers in conservation fields through internships. Our Career Discovery Internship Program (CDIP), in conjunction with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, works with minority college students to place them in SCA internships and on an eventual career path.

Our Community Crews provide conservation opportunities for urban youth right in their own neighborhoods. We are also expanding our outreach to the first-nations community; current programs include our Native American community crews in Alaska, and an all-Navajo community crew in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly.

When it comes to providing access to conservation work, SCA Alumni Council member Christopher Fernández sums it up well. “In many ways the conservation workplace should aim to reflect the biodiversity that exists in nature,” he says. “In order to ‘bio-diversify’ the field, we need to continue to recruit and inspire young people to engage in hands-on service to public lands and empower them to become lifelong stewards of their environment and their communities.”

To find out more about the opportunities that exist at the SCA for minorities and for students of all ethnicities and genders, please visit our website.

Student Conservation Association